At the west end of South Avenue, past the soccer fields and Target Range School, the road narrows and the sidewalk disappears. Most of the traffic disappears, too, as it’s a dead end road butted up to the Bitterroot River. But something you won’t see nearly anywhere else in Missoula County appears in this last section of the road: black yard signs reading “No South Avenue Bridge.”
A small but passionate group of neighbors have fought for decades against moving the Bitterroot crossing from the decaying single-lane Maclay Bridge to a two-way, federally funded South Avenue extension. An equally passionate group, mainly made up of residents living near the Maclay Bridge, have also waged a war to see the new bridge project through.
But only one of the two bridge options has the potential to cost the county millions of dollars, requiring a substantial property tax increase for everyone. And only one option could force families from their homes, which would be razed to make way for construction.
While the proposed bridge might seem like an issue only concerning two small warring factions on the outskirts of Missoula, each desperately clinging to the rural character of their neighborhood, whether the bridge is built has the potential to affect everyone in Missoula County.
The Maclay Bridge, cobbled together from pieces of a few old bridges after the previous was washed away in 1948, was closed for the past week while multiple holes in the pavement and steel base — windows down into the river below — were patched. It will be closed again for much of the coming week as well.
The repairs will cost the county well over $11,000 this time, but it will keep the bridge functioning as the more than 20-year battle of the bridges wages on. This type of costly patchwork repairs will continue until a decision is made on whether to build a new bridge, as the county has planned for decades.
Commissioner Dave Strohmaier won his seat in 2016 on a campaign that included finding a way to stop the South Avenue project and save the historic Maclay Bridge.
Since being elected, he has repeatedly criticized the in-depth environmental and engineering analyses done by the firm hired by the county. He’s asked state and federal officials how to stop the project. He has kept his promise to look for alternative solutions. Emails also show he was aiding the South Avenue Bridge opposition group in developing its strategy, and likewise receiving talking points from its leaders.
Merv Eriksson lived near the end of South Avenue, where he and his wife built a home in 2008, until the end of 2018. Eriksson worked as a bridge engineer for 44 years for the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Highway Administration, and a Missoula engineering firm. He wrote “Identifying and Preserving Historic Bridges” for the Forest Service.
While many of his South Avenue neighbors mobilized an army, known as the Maclay Bridge Alliance, to fight the proposed bridge, Eriksson didn’t get involved.
“I avoided involvement because I didn’t believe that pouring money into the existing Maclay Bridge could possibly ever survive as a viable option,” Eriksson wrote to the commissioners in March. “It’s like replacing the engine of an old Yugo. The engine may run well, but the wheels could fall off next year.”
Eriksson confirmed to the Missoulian he still doesn’t understand how any responsible public officials could support putting money into the failing bridge. In his March letter to the county, he also noted that he doesn’t buy the Maclay Bridge Alliance’s defense of the historic bridge, as its leaders are among the closest neighbors of the proposed bridge.
“I don’t think anyone has a love for this bridge, other than as a red herring to prevent construction of the new South Avenue Bridge,” he wrote.
The Maclay Bridge is classified as “functionally obsolete” by state and federal standards. Because it is a one-lane bridge on a two-way street, it has a recommended 100-vehicle-per-day limit. In 2010, the state counted an average 2,610 vehicles per day.
The weight limit posted on the bridge is 11 tons. The school buses that drive over it each day, four times a day, as they ferry children to and from Big Sky High School and Target Range School weigh around 11 tons empty.
The Missoula Rural Fire Department’s trucks are only allowed to cross it on the way to emergency situations, at a 5 mph crawl, but must go a different way back to the station, as some of the trucks are more than double the posted weight limit.
The approach roads to the Maclay Bridge snake along the Bitterroot River on one side, coming to the bridge at a hard angle. This type of curve is unsafe by federal standards, so without rerouting the road to a safer layout, the Federal Highway Administration won’t fund an overhaul. Rerouting the road would require six families to be kicked out of their homes, and the homes torn down — something Strohmaier said the county would never support.
Since Maclay Bridge replacement or rehabilitation options were first investigated in 1994, the South Avenue Bridge project was identified as the best option out of 16 studied, including various rehabs and leaving the bridge as is.
That conclusion came after examining environmental impacts, cost-benefit ratio, impacts to private property, and a whole host of other factors. Three different rehabilitation options were rated the worst projects for investment. The rehab options could cost $14 million if the roads are brought to modern safety standards, and that would have to be paid for by the county and its residents, as the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has made it clear it will not fund that option.
Despite this, Strohmaier remains a strong advocate for finding a way to rehabilitate the bridge. He said he would not support any option that forced people from their homes, and that no rehab options would meet federal standards. But he said it’s not accurate for people to accuse the county of stalling the review of studies needed to move the project forward before funding goes away.
“For the most part these documents have been in the possession of the Montana Department of Transportation for the better part of a year under their review,” Strohmaier said.
What Strohmaier didn’t mention is that the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) was spending those months addressing questions and criticisms — 31 pages of them — that he raised about the work.
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“I’m not willing to just rubber-stamp a project that previous commissioners prioritized,” Strohmaier said. “I take that seriously and don't want to dismiss the work that's gone into it, but I also think that we should not, as elected officials who have the responsibility of the broader vision of our community, simply abdicate our responsibility by way of turning over our decision-making to the so-called professionals.”
Years of review
Missoula County nominated the project for the state’s bridge funding program in 2002, and by 2010, it had reached the top of the state’s list and additional study began.
After some initial pushback from South Avenue area residents, the county put the project on hold again, and started a review process to allow for more community input before moving forward. Additional review would also serve as a defense if local residents were to sue, as some officials predict they will if the project moves ahead.
All of the engineering studies passed muster, and the project continued to move forward.
In 2014 and again in 2015, county commissioners signed agreements with the state and federal authorities cementing the county's intention to move the project forward, unless a significant reason was found not to. The agreements also required the county to pay back the money the state spent on studying the project if it is unjustly canceled. That amount stands at more than $1 million so far.
The cost of building the South Avenue Bridge is estimated at about $12.8 million. If built as proposed, it would come at no cost to the county, except for some necessary road improvements on South Avenue. The Federal Highway Administration has promised to pay about 87% of the project, and the state will cover the remainder. The federal funding comes from the federal gas tax, and does not impact either the federal budget deficit, nor income taxes.
Jean Curtiss, a former county commissioner who sat on the board throughout the project’s development until an election loss in 2018, said the county signed agreements to keep moving the project forward in good faith because the state feared the current situation: that the project would risk failing because of politics.
“This has become Dave (Strohmaier)’s wall, a campaign promise he made with little information,” Curtiss said, referring to President Donald Trump’s promise to build a border wall. “He said he hadn’t read the documents last fall when I asked him, ‘What did you identify in the documents that you did not agree with?’”
She said that while the county did have the ability and responsibility to review the professional engineering studies, it was not appropriate to criticize the findings simply because one didn’t like them.
In a January email exchange between commissioners, days before Strohmaier asked state and federal officials how to stop the project in Helena, Commissioner Nicole “Cola” Rowley noted the options she saw as being available.
The options included:
• accepting the federal funding and building the South Avenue Bridge;
• using the county’s dedicated bridge funds to rehab Maclay and let all other bridges fall into disrepair while raising property taxes, as even the cheapest rehab option exceeded the county’s bridge fund;
• use the county’s reserve funds and ruin the county’s credit rating, costing the taxpayers millions in the resulting higher interest rates;
• put a bond up to county-wide vote funding rehab of the bridge;
• or do nothing and leave the bridge alone.
At the end of her email, she asked Strohmaier not to pose his critiques of the project as those of the county, but rather as his own, as “they have a clear tone of disagreement with our staff, HDR (engineering firm), MDT and FHWA that I am uncomfortable adopting without hearing their answers, explanations, etc.”
On Tuesday, Oct. 8, commissioners Strohmaier and Juanita Vero visited the Maclay Bridge while repairs were being done. County engineer Erik Dickson showed them the deteriorating steel that would continue to need to be replaced as holes formed in the road.
Dickson showed them the steel stringers supporting the roadway, and how the ones that were replaced about 15 years ago were significantly rusted and deteriorating already. He showed them how the tension members were bowing, causing uneven stress points that would eventually fail if not addressed. He showed them the pier, with an unknown foundation, causing a scour hole and a long unnatural island to form in the river.
Merv Eriksson, the retired bridge engineer who resisted getting involved with the bridge controversy, said he still can’t wrap his head around why the county is still seeking rehab options.
“I just think, man, oh man, how can they give a million and a half back and turn down the $12 million to build the new bridge,” he said. “It makes sense to rehab if it can no longer carry the loads that it needs to carry. You can upgrade to carry heavier loads. But when it’s too short, it's too narrow, it's on a lousy alignment and it can't carry the load, you’ve got to replace it because it will only get worse.”